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Here's What Experts Say to Look For in a Mask for Dancing

From oversized mouse heads in The Nutcracker to Jabbawockeez masks, most dancers have experience performing with restrictive costumes or headpieces. But as we transition from taking class at home during the COVID-19 pandemic to sharing a studio with others, masks aren't just a costume accessory: They're a necessary health tool.

While masks are not a replacement for other COVID-19 prevention measures that we've been following for months, such as social distancing and practicing hand hygiene, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear face masks or cloth face coverings in any public setting or instance where it's difficult to maintain at least six feet of social distance—and that includes the dance studio.

We spoke with medical experts and dancewear manufacturers about what to look for in a protective mask for dance.


Why masks are a must

COVID-19 is mainly spread through respiratory droplets and aerosols that are produced when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes. Covering your nose and mouth is one of the easiest things you can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and keep your fellow dancers safe, says Dr. Nita Bharti, an infectious disease expert from the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State University.

The point of wearing a mask is to protect other people from your own respiratory droplets, says Dr. Charlotte Baker, assistant professor of epidemiology at Virginia Tech. Everyone in the studio must wear a mask, because people can carry and spread COVID-19 without having any symptoms. "The more people wear a mask, the safer everybody gets to be," she says.

Masks are particularly important when you're indoors, because there's less airflow for respiratory droplets to disperse. If you're in an enclosed indoor dance studio, for example, your droplets will essentially be confined to that room, Bharti says. Not to mention, you tend to breathe heavier during physical exercise, which means that you're spreading even more droplets, Baker says.

Keeping your nose and mouth covered throughout a day of rehearsals and classes comes with its challenges, but it's worth it for your long-term health. "Even if you're young and healthy, this virus can do horrible things, with lasting effects that could really have a negative outcome on your dance career," Bharti says.

Find the right fabric

Ideally, your mask should be breathable so you can still exert yourself, but thick enough to stop your respiratory droplets. Baker recommends a simple fabric test: Put your mask on, hold your hand six to 10 inches from your face, and take a deep breath. If you can feel the air on your hand as you exhale, your mask isn't thick enough, she says.

Since your mask will be close to your face for prolonged periods of time, opt for natural fabrics, such as bamboo and cotton, over man-made ones like polyester, says Luis Guimarães, CEO and co-founder of dancewear company Ballet Rosa. The Ballet Rosa masks are made from a blend of bamboo and stretchy cotton, which are natural fabrics that work well at filtering particles while also allowing breathability.

Focus on fit

From a practical perspective, your mask needs to cover your nose, mouth and chin, with no gaps where respiratory droplets could easily escape, Baker says. "The biggest thing is you just want to make sure it fits your face," she says.

Of course, buns and other dance hairstyles can make mask straps awkward. Ballet Rosa offers four masks that have slightly different straps to accommodate different hair needs: one with an adjustable single strap; one with double elastics; one that loops around the ears; and one with an adjustable over-ear drawstring. The idea is that you can choose how to position the mask around your bun and keep it secure throughout your day.

These details matter, because once you have your mask on, you shouldn't fidget with it or remove it. Touching the outside of the mask can cause contamination.

Wash it well

Many fabric face masks that are intended for exercise are treated with antimicrobial agents to ward off germs from your sweat. Bloch's B-Safe face mask, for example, is made from a cotton-polyester blend that's designed to control odor and keep the fabric fresh as you dance, explains Cathy Radovan, COO of Bloch. The Under Armour Sportsmask, another popular pick for athletes, has an inner fabric liner that wicks away sweat and keeps bacteria from growing on the mask.

Even with these special features, it's important to wash your mask after every use, or when it becomes visibly soiled. The CDC suggests machine-washing your mask with regular laundry detergent and warm water, and drying it on the highest heat setting.

Keep your mask in a plastic or paper bag when you're not using it to prevent further contamination. If you dance most days, you may want to have more than one mask so you can always have a clean mask at the ready.

Do a "dress rehearsal"

Exercising in a mask takes practice, just like everything else in dance, Baker says. It's completely safe to cover your nose and mouth with fabric while dancing or exercising, but a little discomfort is to be expected, she says.

Research suggests that masks and face coverings may increase "breathing effort" during exercise, but not to a degree that it would affect your performance, explains Dr. William O. Roberts, a family medicine and primary care sports medicine physician and professor at the University of Minnesota, who's a past president of the American Council of Sports Medicine. "You're not going to have any problems with oxygenation, increased CO2 retention or anything like that," he says.

If you're having difficulty breathing, or if you feel short of breath while dancing, that's a sign that you need a different mask, Baker says. You might want to explore either a more breathable fabric that is still effective or an alternative fit that allows you to get more oxygen, she says. (Keep in mind that wearing a mask or face covering can be dangerous for people who have medical conditions that affect breathing, such as asthma, she says. Talk to your doctor if you're not sure what the best option is for you.)

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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